In the December 23, 1869 edition of The Nation, Francis Parkman wrote:
The New England man of letters… was apt to be a recluse, ignorant of the world, bleached by a close room and an iron stove, never breathing the outer air when he could help it, and resembling a medieval monk in his scorn of the body, or rather his utter disregard of it. The products of his mind were as pallid as the hue of his face, and, like their parent, void of blood, bone, sinew, muscle, and marrow. That he should be provincial was, for a long time, inevitable, but that he was emasculate was clearly his own fault. As his scholarship was not fruitful of any very valuable results, as it did not make itself felt in the living world that ranged around it, as, in short, it showed no vital force, it began at length to be regarded as a superfluous excrescence. (558-559)
The same, unfortunately, could be said of too many of us who are involved in scholarship today. Teaching aside, little of what we do or say has observable impact on the world outside our universities. Yes, there are technological and scientific breakthroughs that clearly do, but these are rare—and are far removed from the efforts of most of us.
Instead of broadening our reach, we narrow our disciplines, jealously arguing about who should or shouldn’t be allowed to teach what course, splintering into smaller and smaller specialties where we end of speaking to each other in jargons protecting us from outside interference. Our books are roaring successes if a thousand copies are sold; our articles are hidden behind paywalls so high that they make sure no one but fellow specialists will ever see them.
The solution? We need to get out more. A bit of sun can remove the pallor, maybe even getting more people to pay attention to us.
This isn’t simple whimsy. The move to “reform” American public schools feeds, in part, on a misunderstanding of just what goes on in schools. That “reform” movement is beginning to turn its eyes toward higher education. The best way of making sure that we faculty members maintain at least a little control of the reform agenda is for us to make ourselves and what we do (both in the classroom and in our scholarship) known to the general public in a way that the public can appreciate.
We need to join the discussions in today’s public sphere, adding our expertise to the greater conversation rather than continuing to simply talk to each other.
Otherwise, we are going to find ourselves imprisoned in the very universities that we thought would protect us.